If you asked 10 veteran guitar players…
To choose between playing a $100 guitar on a $1000 amp…
Or a $1000 guitar on a $100 amp…
It’s a pretty safe bet that all 10 would choose the better amp…
And be totally certain they made the right choice.
Because among the endless number of factors that ultimately determine the tone of an electric guitar…
The amp is regarded by most players as the single most important of all.
Finding the right one can be tricky…since a great choice for one player might be a terrible choice for someone else…
Depending on whether it’s used to:
- Practice at Home
- Record in the Studio
- Perform Live
Plus…there are several other factors to consider as well, such as:
- Combo Amps vs Stacks
- Solid State vs Tube
- Digital Modeling
- Cabinet Construction
And so for today, we’ll cover all these topics and more in this in-depth guide to electric guitar amps.
Sound good? Then let’s begin.
1. Combo vs Stack
When comparing amp models, the first and most obvious difference you’ll notice is:
- Some come as 1 piece
- some come in 2+ pieces
Now here’s what this means:
- One-piece amps (combo amps) hold both the amplifier and the speakers in a single box.
- Multi-piece setups (stacks), have separate boxes for each one.
Typically, stacks are used for performing in large venues, mainly because they are capable of bigger, louder sounds.
That’s not to say that combo amps aren’t pretty loud themselves…because they are.
Combine that with their added portability and lower price, and it’s clear why they are the MUCH more popular option.
Unless you’ve been playing for a long time, and have tried out dozens of amps over the years…OR there’s a specific reason why you need something as big and loud as a full-stack…
There’s a 95% chance that a combo amp is what you should get.
2. Solid State vs Tube
The single most common question players ask when buying their first amp is:
What exactly is the difference between solid-state and tube amps?
And which one should I get?
Well here’s how they compare:
In terms of sound, tube amps have a warmer, more textured sound, and are highly-prized for the unique type of natural distortion they create, which can’t quite be duplicated by any other means.
In comparison, solid-state amps have a cleaner, somewhat “colder” sound, which is not necessarily bad in itself…but is definitely less sought-after compared to the tone of tube amps.
In terms of performance, since solid-state amps are the newer of the two technologies…
They are cheaper, require less maintenance, are lighter and more portable, and are generally more reliable than tube amps overall.
In some new amp models, you actually can find hybrids of these two technologies:
- with vacuum tubes used in the preamp,
- and solid-state circuitry in the power amp…
Which essentially gives you that classic tube sound with less of the downsides.
It’s also worth noting that in terms of volume…
Tube amps are significantly louder than solid-state amps when all other factors are equal (same speakers, wattage, etc).
And this leads nicely into the next topic of discussion….
The next most common question that everyone asks when comparing amps is:
How many watts should I get?
And while most folks simply assume that:
- more watts = more volume
The real truth of the matter is actually far more complex, and well beyond the scope of this article.
So instead of showing you a bunch of equations and graphs, I’ll just tell you what you probably care to know:
While you might assume that a 100W amp would be 5x as loud as a 20W amp, it’s actually only around 2x as loud…
Which is still loud enough to be used for almost any purpose.
And so…as a VERY GENERAL rule of thumb:
- 50W amps or greater are better for large-venue performances
- 40W amps or less are better for practice, studio, and small to mid-size venues
And if you want an exact number to start with…20W or 30W will most likely give you maximum versatility in each of these settings.
And if you’re choosing a tube amp, it’s worth noting that lower wattage amps allow tubes to “saturate” and distort without having to crank up the volume too loud.
And so…as another VERY GENERAL rule of thumb…
With tube amps especially…it’s better to lean towards the lower wattages.
4. Speaker Size and Count
As many guitar experts would agreee…
The number and size of the speakers on a particular guitar amp…
Is likely to be even more influential in the resulting tone and loudness than the actual amplifier itself.
As you might expect:
- LARGER speakers = more loudness
- MORE speakers = more loudness
However, bigger isn’t always better…
Since smaller speakers are actually better at reproducing high frequencies (while larger speakers are better at reproducing low ones).
In terms of size, speakers can be as small as 2″ in diameter, and go all the way up to 15″.
But the vast majority come in 1 of 3 sizes:
In terms of number, the typical options are:
For practicing, one 8″ speaker is standard, and can actually be preferable since less bass frequencies means you are less likely to annoy your neighbors.
For performing…one or two 10″ or 12″ speakers is generally most suitable in small venues. While 4×10″ or 4×12″ work better for larger venues, and often come in their own dedicated cabinets.
For recording, pretty much any combination can be used, depending on the tone you are searching for.
4. Digital Modeling
Compared to the standard effects you commonly see in classic amps…
Such as spring reverb and tremolo for instance…
With newer amps, you can often get so much more…
Thanks to today’s advancements in digital modeling technology.
Typically, with many of today’s low-mid priced solid state amps…
You now get some variation of the following 2 features:
- Digital effects processing – which can potentially replace all other external effects from pedalboards and rack units.
- Classic amp modeling – which can emulate the sound of character of much more expensive tube amps using digital processing.
It almost sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well in a way, it sort of is.
While their versatility might make them ideal for practice and casual jam sessions…
The fact remains that professionals, who can afford whatever they want…will generally choose NOT to use them.
And the reason is…a digital emulation of the “the real thing” will never sound quite as good as the actual “real thing” (or at least not yet anyway).
So in the recording studio especially, where sound quality is the priority…a nice plain tube amp is still widely-regarded as the ideal option.
And in cases where a tube amp is NOT an option, and modeling is the only other choice…you might be better off using guitar amp modeling software instead…
- which is cheaper than a modeling amp,
- offers far more tonal options,
- and takes up zero space in the studio.
5. Cabinet Construction
A commonly overlooked feature with guitar amps…
Cabinet construction is one of those things that deserves far more attention than it normally gets.
Because…depending on several factors including:
- type of wood
- general craftsmanship
…the cabinet itself can have as much of an effect on the resulting tone as either the amps or speakers.
However…in terms of actual decisions to make…there is only one:
Open back? Or closed back?
As a rule of thumb…
- Open back guitar cabs – have a more ambient, non-directional sound, with greater emphasis on high frequencies, and a less focused low-end.
- Closed back guitar cabs – have a more focused, directional sound (since it only projects the sound forward), which generally yields a stronger bass and midrange presence.
In the studio, open back cabinets are often preferable, because they offer more choices with potential mic placements.
On stage, open back cabinets are nice for the performers, because they can hear themselves better, especially with no monitoring.
But closed back cabinets are nice for the sound guys, who would rather not deal with competing sound coming out the back.
Choosing the Right Amp for You
So now that you’ve been thoroughly educated on the topic…
The only thing left to do is use your newfound knowledge to choose an amp that suits you.
Now for the majority of folks reading this article…
Who simply want the cheapest possible practice amp to get started…
Here are the top two I recommend:
- Fender Frontman 10G – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Vox Pathfinder – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
If however…you’d like to spend a bit more($100-300), and get something suitable for both practice and possibly performing as well…
Here is a good list of popular solid-state amps to check out:
- Fender Champion (20/40/100)
- Fender Mustang (20/100/150)
- Marshall MG (10/15/30/50/100)
- Vox Valvetronix (20/40/100)
As you’ll notice, all the amps I’ve recommended so far have been either Fender, Vox, or Marshall.
And it’s no coincidence…
Because while there are plenty of other brands that make amps which are arguably just as good or better…
The fact is that these 3 brands alone are probably responsible for over 90% of the most classic amps in music history…
Many of which, are some vintage version of one of the top tube amps I recommend below:
- Fender Blues Deluxe – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fender Hot Rod Blues Junior – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Vox Custom AC15 – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Marshall DSL40C – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fender Twin Reverb – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fender Princeton Reverb – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
- Fender Deluxe Reverb – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusiciansF/Thomann)
If the best of the best is what you want, whether it be for performing, recording, or just some really enjoyable practice, any of the previous amps should suit you just fine.
Mini Guitar Amps
To conclude this post, just for fun, I’d like to show some fun little toys known as “mini guitar amps“.
While you obviously wouldn’t use them for “real” practicing…
They’re still a cool little novelty, which you might use:
- To give as a gift…
- To wow your friends at parties…
- Or perhaps to jam along with the radio on your next road trip
It’s true…they don’t sound great. But you shouldn’t expect them to…since they are so tiny and cheap after all.
Instead, the only thing to ask yourself when choosing one is:
Which one looks coolest?
So if you’re interested, check out the links below and decide for yourself: